In their first home game of the new season, AC Milan produced an emphatic 4-1 victory against Torino on Saturday evening.
Christian Pulisic opened the scoring in the 33rd minute, after Milan forced a turnover and sprung a counterattack against an unset Torino.
The away side equalised minutes later, however, after Milan’s tactic of holding a deep defensive line against opposition freekicks backfired. Despite making two prior clearances, the home team persisted on staying deep, and Torino consequently capitalised.
But 10 minutes later, Oliver Giroud restored the Milan lead, courtesy of a generous VAR penalty award. With Torino feeling aggrieved, Theo Hernandez made matters worse when his deft finish made it 3-1 moments before half-time.
In the second half, another VAR penalty award, following another Milan counterattack, and another Giroud conversion, wrapped up the 4-1 win to give Milan a perfect start to the 2023/24 campaign.
Away from the goals, @Tactics_Tweets had a few tactical observations from the game. Read on to find out more.
Stefano Pioli named an unchanged side from the opening day win. In possession, Milan used a number of similar tendencies and solutions as they showcased against Bologna. However, out of possession there were adjustments in different phases due to Torino’s attacking shape.
Ivan Jurić made one change to the team which drew against Cagliari. Torino’s wingback system adjusted with and without the ball. In possession, their wingbacks advanced to form a 3-4-3.
Out of possession, when engaging in the Milan half, the away side employed a player-orientated marking scheme before dropping into a 5-3-2 when defending their own box.
Sophisticated long balls
Throughout preseason and against Bologna, a recurring tendency of Milan in possession has been their use of Maignan. In their opening Serie A win, the French goalkeeper’s long passes were highlighted, as he attempted 21 launched passes (passes longer than 40 yards).
Against Torino, whilst Maignan’s attempted launched passes was slightly lower at 16, when compared to his 2022/23 per 90 average it is still over an 80% increase. The tactic behind these longer passes are to bypass the opposition’s high defensive set-up to progress possession upfield and/or create direct attacking situations against disjointed structures.
To put simply, long ball football. However, these are not aimless long punts forward to Oliver Giroud. The Milan goalkeepers pass completion percentage of these launched passes increased against Torino (56.3%) compared to Bologna (28.6%).
And a reason for this is because the whole Milan team were making coordinated movements to disjoint the opposition’s defensive structure and create space and targets for Maignan to aim at.
In their opening two Serie A games, Milan have faced opponents who want to engage higher up the pitch. When the Rossoneri had possession in their own third or half, both Bologna and Torino pushed their sides up and employed iterations of player-orientated marking schemes, in essence man-marking.
As a result – and having known this through opposition analysis – Milan have used various player movements and positioning to manipulate the opposition’s marking scheme to their benefit.
Then, when an opportune moment arises, Maigan (the free player as no designated man-marker) has used his technical ability to exploit these disjointed structures to create attacking situations.
There were 16 examples to choose from against Torino, but here’s a couple of situations to showcase this tactic in reality.
In the first screenshot below, Milan have the ball in their own third and following a Maigan pass to Fikayo Tomori, Torino began to lock in on their designated opponent…
…queue Milan player movements to manipulate this marking scheme. In the visual below, you can see that Rade Krunić and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have dragged their opponents higher. And out of shot, in more advanced areas, Milan are further manipulating the Torino structure which Maigan attempts to exploit with a long pass forward.
In this final image, you can now see how Giroud has dropped short, dragging up his marker and Pulisic and Leão’s out-to-in runs have generated a 2v2 opportunity.
The above passage of play resulted in a box entry and cross from Milan but Torino managed to clear the danger.
In this next example, Milan have just thwarted an attempted Torino counterattack, therefore players from both teams are getting back into position, offensively and defensively. However, as play settled, Milan began to patiently keep possession deep in their own half to draw Torino (and their man-markers) upfield…
…the action picks up in the visual below, where you can see Milan have worked the ball back to Maigan and provided him time and space ahead, to assess his passing options.
It is also worth noting both Krunić and Piolo (bottom middle) gesticulating to the home team, instructing where to move and position themselves to help disjoint and exploit the Torino system.
After being allowed over 10 seconds to assess his next move, Maigan sees an opportunity to exploit the Torino backline and goes long…
…where you can see below, Milan had a 3v3 opportunity – again, aided by Giroud dropping, Pulisic and Leão making out-to-in runs and this time Tijjani Reijnders making a depth run.
The above sequence ended with a Leão shot which whistled over the bar.
So we’ve seen how Milan’s use of long passes helped bypass the top end of Torino defensive set-up and created some direct attacking situations against a disjointed backline.
But Milan were not only using Maigan’s ability to make accurate long passes, he was also initiating the majority of Milan’s possession play.
Maignan the playmaker
According to FBRef, the Milan goalkeeper had 70 touches during the game which was the team’s 3rd highest and he had more touches than any Torino player. To help qualify this volume of touches, last season in Serie A Maigan averaged 38.8 touches per 90.
In addition to this, Maignan made the 2nd highest number of passes in the game with 65 – one less than Tomori who made 66 (source: Wyscout).
The visual below showcases Milan’s passing network and how intrinsic their goalkeeper was. A larger dot indicates more touches and a thicker line indicates a higher frequency of passes between the players.
Like with their long passes, Pioli’s players manipulated the Torino marking scheme which allowed Milan to further utilise Maigan’s technical ability to orchestrate multiple controlled, progressive and more in-direct attacking sequences of play.
Before showcasing some examples in practice, here’s an overview of Torino’s player-orientated marking scheme to help set the scene.
Their forward line (Nemanja Radonjić and Antonio Sanabria) covered the two Milan central defenders (Tomori and Malick Thiaw). In behind, Nikola Vlašić was locked on Krunić, Samuele Ricci on Reijnders and Raoul Bellanova pushed up to track Hernandez.
Alessandro Buongiorno closely followed Giroud and Perr Schuurs was never too far away from Leão. Elsewhere, Torino initially tried various solutions to cover the Milan right-hand side, but the strategy they eventually settled upon was left winback Mërgim Vojvoda pushing up to Calabria, Ivan Ilić tracking Loftus-Cheek which left Ricardo Rodríguez with Pulisic.
Whilst the Torino players could pass on opponents following Milan positional interchanges, when the home side had the ball in their own half, they tended to stay with their designated player.
Now, here’s some sequences Milan were able to manufacture.
In this first example, (note the time 14:07) you can actually see part of Milan’s 4-3-3 structure with their direct Torino opponent primed to engage.
Here, Tomori makes a slight movement forward which opens up a passing lane for Maigan out wide to Hernandez who then returns the pass back to the team’s playmaker (excuse me, goalkeeper)…
…in the next visual, 30 seconds later, Maigan is still in possession and is orchestrating Tomori to advance higher into the vacated space.
Milan have also made some movements to disjoint the Torino shape with Hernandez moving infield and their two midfield 8s (Loftus-Cheek and Reijnders) also advancing higher into the opposition half.
The sequence picks up below 30 seconds later. After some exchanges of passes on the right-hand side, Maignan is not only back in possession but also high into the defensive third.
With Milan’s further positional movements (Calabria inside) creating space on the right wing for Loftus-Cheek to pull out to, Milan found a progression route into the middle third via the wings.
The conclusion of the above sequence involved Milan attempting to combine on the right wing but Torino managed to intercept before the ball eventually went out for a Milan throw-in.
So whilst this passage of play did not lead to anything, it was a perfect illustration of Milan’s manipulation and Maignan’s role in possession. As is this next example, where Milan have again passed the ball back to Maigan…
…then, two coordinated and simultaneous movements – Krunić’s forward run to vacate the central space and Hernandez’s diagonal run infield – allowed Maigan to execute a vertical pass…
…which Hernandez received, before linking with Leão and continuing to carry the ball forward. Note, how the positioning and movements of the Milan midfield and forward lines has disjointed the Torino defensive shape…
In the final image below, you can see how Hernandez then attempts a one-two with Reijnders to get him in behind the Torino last line but the Dutch midfielders pass lacked the required accuracy.
Across the 90 minutes, there were countless examples of Milan using similar tactics to the ones above. And importantly, these were not just used to create direct or in-direct attacks, but also as a method to progress possession through the thirds or simply as a means of controlling the game.
As Torino used a different in possession and attacking structure compared to Bologna, Milan adjusted their defensive system. When engaging higher against Torino’s 3-4-3, the Milan players were each tasked with being responsible for a direct opponent.
Below the Milan front three are locked onto the Torina back three. Loftus-Cheek has pushed up onto his near-side opposition central midfielder and Calabria’s role is to jump onto the Torino left wingback (when one Milan full-back jumped, the opposite full-back dropped deeper to provide cover in the back line).
In this second image, you can see the rest of the Milan team. Thiaw has followed a Torino forward, leaving Tomori covering the other.
Krunić was responsible for Vlašić and Reijnders for his near-side opposition central midfielder. And finally, you can see Hernandez providing cover in the backline but when required, his opponent was the right wing-back.
Now whilst this was Milan’s set-up in the opposition half, as they defended their own, they dropped into a 4-4-2 with Reijnders covering left-sided midfield which allowed Leão to stay higher alongside Giroud.
This was not only numerically logical, as Torino used a back three, so one less offensive player to cover, but it also afforded Leão to play a ‘rest attack role’. Put simply, be in a higher starting position for counterattacks.
As seen in the 28th minute, where Milan are defending in their 4-4-2 low block.
Following a Tomori interception, Pulisic gathered the ball before carrying into the Torino half and trying (unsuccessfully) to find Leão’s run with a pass in behind.
And this rest attack role also showed up nicely in the build up to the fourth goal. Below, in the 61st minute, Milan are defending their half in a 4-4-2 (Reijnders has momentarily covered for Hernandez at left-back). The only Milan player out of shot is Leão.
In the next image, twenty seconds later, Milan turned over possession and found Reijnders who passes in behind for Leão whose initial starting position has afforded Milan this counterattacking opportunity.
The outcome of this sequence, Leão takes-on his opponent inside the box and gets fouled, winning his side a penalty that gets converted to seal the 4-1 victory.
Across Milan’s two opening fixtures, they have shown a number of recurring, and effective, aspects to their play. Counterattacks, ball carrying, and use of Maignan’s technical ability to bypass opposition, progress possession and create attacking opportunities.
And whilst these are all encouraging indicators of developing strengths of the team. It is worth noting that the two opponents they have faced have been stylistically suitable (and vulnerable) to these tactical aspects.
Further, and differing challenges await, starting with Roma and Jose Mourinho away this coming Friday. But with six points on the board and six goals scored, the Rossoneri faithful head to the capital full of confidence and belief.